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The Cinematic Haunting of British World War II Memory: Genghis Cohn
Humorous responses to World War II have been and continue to be a compelling subject of British culture, integrating satire and parody into tales of self-sacrificing heroism and the blood and sweat it took to achieve victory over Nazi domination. The 1993 BBC production of the film Genghis Cohn presented British audiences with a challenging script that elided the recognizable and relatable melodramatic conventions of village mysteries, including reparative resolutions. Instead, the film’s tensions result from the synthesis of Holocaust tragedy and satire of the perpetrators. Genghis Cohn’s eponymous protagonist is a Holocaust ghost who returns from his mass grave in 1958 to wreak vengeance on Licht, a small Bavarian town where eleven years after the Allies’ denazification programs, there are no signs acknowledging Nazi destruction or memorializing the victims. Forming a nexus of political, cultural, and gender relations, Genghis Cohn anchors the country town mystery to a multivalent satire—of German denazification and classic British World War II movies.
Keywords British film / Holocaust / World War II / satire / denazification
I begin by asking readers to look closely at the image inserted here (Fig. 1).
Like an old picture post card, its impressionistic outlines evoke a quaint country village nestled in a bucolic landscape of ancient rolling hills. Although the image suggests once upon another time and place, it is also familiar as the iconic setting of so many cozy British television mysteries, including Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, Father Brown’s Kembleford and more recently, Masterpiece Mystery’s Grantchester. The image typically streams into one of quiet streets circling a town square, as though celebrating a stalwart, shared continuum of a gentle way of life. With its temperate style and unhurried progression, the country town mystery offers little in the way of narrative surprises, development, or self-reflexive critique, but as the romantic image suggests, the genre also offers reassurance in uncertain times. Critics have observed that Britain’s green and pleasant mysteries, extending from the golden 1930s through today, from Agatha Christie’s twelve novels and twenty stories starring Miss Marple to twenty-one seasons of ITV’s “Midsomer Murders, register nostalgia for Britain’s mythic constancy.”1 As this genre leads us to expect, once the tranquil images fade, a mildly worrying, but unsurprising plot unfolds.
In the film this essay examines, the 1993 BBC TV production of Genghis Cohn, based on Romain Gary’s 1968 novel, the serenity of the archetypal rural town has been scorched by the serial murders of six men, all pillars of the community. As the genre anticipates, a dedicated police chief investigates, but to no avail, that is until an amateur intervenes, much to the chagrin of the churlish professionals. That each murder occurs as a stab in the back, a post-coitus anti-climax to an extramarital dalliance, is the first clue that something other than geniality binds the community—perhaps the usual suspects—unbridled lust and jealousy, revenge, or suppressed traumatic memories. But according to the genre’s desire to please, before the mystery can be solved, plot twists and red herrings keep the detectives and audience guessing. In Genghis Cohn, the domesticated horror we expect in Agatha Christie or G.K. Chesterton registers with whimsical irony: the men have died smiling with satisfaction. Moreover, police interviews reveal no clues to the murderer’s identity because the eyes of all of the women lovers were closed.
In a generic twist, the setting of Genghis Cohn in 1958 conjures but also undercuts the postwar yearning for a return to the prosaic conservatism identified with the green and inoffensively corrupt habitat of the fictional Cotswolds.2 As Gill Plain proffers, although Britons voted “overwhelmingly for the radical change of a Labour government” in 1945, they also yearned “for a return to ‘normality’, which ‘in essence meant life before the war’” (33). In Genghis Cohn, the town’s serial sex murders both camouflage and represent a far more heinous crime than could be imagined in St. Mary Mead. The crime in Genghis Cohn intertwines and extends beyond its local political and social history to involve the collective identity and historical consciousness of townspeople and audience. The archetypal tranquility of the genre’s Golden Age and its 1950s replay of an enduring pastoral England is shattered by the film’s evocation of a different historical narrative, a more threatening 1930s and less sanguine 1950s. While the genre’s insular settings and characters typically lead it to ignore the dire implications of the rise and consolidation of Nazi power and the global breadth of World War II, Genghis Cohn plants the war’s most cataclysmic horrors firmly in the heart of a town square.
British Films of World War II and the Challenges of the Holocaust
Britain’s production of Holocaust films have been primarily for television, and began in 2001.3 We now know that “the British government undoubtedly recognised the implications of the unfolding destruction of the European Jews. However, in the midst of fighting an ongoing war, the government continued to follow the strategy that considered winning the war the only and ‘most effective’ way to save Jewish lives" ("British Response"). That British wartime films focused primarily on boosting the public’s morale is understandable, especially with the persistent threat of bombing and possibility of invasion. Nonetheless, the question remains why there are no postwar British films dramatizing any events related to the Holocaust, including Britain’s celebrated 1938 rescue of 10,000 Jewish children from Central Europe, the Kindertransport.4 Without that effort, those children would have been murdered along with the other 1.5 million. Caroline Sharples and Olaf Jensen observe that “the path towards establishing a Holocaust consciousness in Britain has been protracted and politicized, and the manner in which the nation remembers this genocide remains imperfect” (1). For example, although the mass slaughter of the Jews was featured regularly on British TV “from 1955 onwards,” its purpose was primarily “the British experience and the heroics of non-British helpers” (Jensen 116). As many scholars have observed, it was only in 1978, when the American TV miniseries Holocaust was broadcast in Britain and West Germany that the word itself, and the process and tortures that comprised its horrors became widely known and discussed by general audiences.5 More recently, Geoff Eley proposes, British filmmaking has been affected by “the exhaustion of an earlier national-popular mythology of World War II, whose leftist versions passed into crisis in the 1960s, before being aggressively dismantled by Thatcherism” (832).
The BBC production of Genghis Cohn in November 1993 presented British audiences with a challenging script that elided the recognizable and relatable melodramatic conventions of village mysteries, including suspenseful threats of denunciation, betrayals of romance and family ties, and reparative resolutions. Instead, the film’s tensions result from the synthesis of Holocaust tragedy and satire of the perpetrators.6 Genghis Cohn’s eponymous protagonist is a Holocaust ghost who returns from his mass grave in 1958 to wreak vengeance on Licht, a small Bavarian town where eleven years after the Allies’ denazification programs, there are no signs acknowledging Nazi destruction or memorializing the victims. To be sure, the film’s 1958 setting predates the use of Holocaust to refer to the Jewish genocide and well before the iconic mantra, “Never forget.”7 For British audiences in 1993, the Holocaust exhibit at London’s Imperial War Museum was still seven years off. Prodding British memory to integrate the Holocaust into its World War II narrative, the film might be said to be impatient. And so Genghis Cohn provokes its British audience with a particular slant: that although the Holocaust is now commemorated in Britain, all during the war, rescuing the Jews was never a part of the Allies’ war aims.8 Europe’s imperiled Jews also had no place in popular and official British World War II narratives.
A possible reason for the omission may very well be the fact that the Holocaust did not take place on British soil except for the German occupation of the Channel Islands, where three Jewish women sought refuge, were denounced to the Germans, and perished in Auschwitz.9 The Blitz that killed 32,000 civilians and destroyed two million houses was a horrific signal of the Germans’ total war on Britain, but is distinct from the Holocaust. British civilians did not experience Nazi roundups, deportations, ghettos, concentration camps, and killing centers. Moreover, in one of the first documentary films representing the liberation of the concentration camps and the exposure of mass graves and skeletal survivors, the British-produced Memory of the Camps, victims are identified as national subjects—the word Jew is absent.10
Although British Jews have always played prominent roles in the British film and TV industries, as Nathan Abrams demonstrates, “it is surprising to write that, today, the role and representation of Jews and Jewishness...is still a neglected field of study....Jews have been “hidden in plain sight” (1). Before and during World War II, the British government expressed concerns about a resurgence of antisemitism. Unlike the general public who, despite class differences, were unified once Germany’s attacks began, British Jews needed to expend “scarce resources and time to combating antisemitism in Britain during the war” while facing the plight of European Jewry (Kushner 131). Anxiety pervaded the British Jewish community because their own lives were threatened if Germany were to invade Britain. I propose an intervention to this British Jewish question by arguing that the film Genghis Cohn addresses it through narrative and cinematic experiments that constitute its absurdist response to British memory of World War II and the Holocaust.
A Ghost Story as Satire
The amateur who exposes the dark secrets of Licht is also the narrative source and voice of the film’s satire. Interrupting the investigation as well as the plot’s progression, he is a Jewish ghost, an intrusive and unwanted outsider who subverts the social, historical, and narrative conventions of the anodyne village mystery. In addition to sabotaging a literary genre, he debunks the fictional golden age of the 1930s and its latter-day echo in the 1950s by representing a different kind of fantasy. Instead of serving the genre as a mildly titillating ruse, this Jewish specter embodies a critical gloss even as it is composed as a mosaic of send-ups, mocking two British fictional traditions. Time traveling between his antisemitic beatings in the 1930s, his murder in 1944, and his 1958 manifestation, Genghis Cohn’s ghost defies the professionals’ tried and true methods of ratiocination and forensic science. He also invades the town’s confidently stable and forward-looking surfaces as a haunting and haunted shadow of the past, suggesting that the town is afflicted not only with its local secrets, but also those of the nation. As its name suggests, Licht will shed light on its own vexed history despite all efforts to the contrary.
Despite his commanding past and presence, the police commissioner, Otto Schatz, is no match for the Jewish ghost. A former SS officer, in April 1944 in a forest near Dachau, he ordered countless Jewish men, women, and children to stand in front of an open pit into which their bodies were designed to fall after being shot. The ghost that haunts Schatz and avenges his brutal past is one of the slaughtered, a Jewish vaudeville ventriloquist named Moishe Cohn. His combined persona as a professional comic and a ghost announces the film’s non-realist narrative status. However, with ironic implications, as a fantasy, Genghis Cohn suggests concerns about historical accuracy and verisimilitude that remain compelling criteria for the assessment of fictional Holocaust representations.11 In her discussion of the use of humor and fable in Holocaust films, Sidra de Koven Ezrachi argues that “any consideration of the comic must therefore engage with what is essentially its counterhistorical pretense, its daring attempt at erasure in the foreground of what remains its historical backdrop” (294). In its comic fantasy of revenge, Genghis Cohn is daring in polemical insistence on situating an undeniable history in the foreground of British film.
Accentuating the film’s comic fantasy, the names of the town and protagonists are punned to create an absurdist critical template. Schatz, the Nazi officer’s name, is often used as an affectionate address, meaning "honey" or "darling" in German. In the novel, Cohn explains that “in private, he nicknamed the former Hauptjudenfresser (Chief Jew Eater) […] Schatzchen in private, an endearing word meaning ‘little precious one’, and for centuries part of German lovers’ vocabulary” (Dance 10).12 With scathing irony, the Jewish ghost then describes his takeover of Schatz as an irrevocable bond: “We became inseparable” (Dance 10) (Fig. 2).13
If Cohen becomes Schatz’s doppelgänger, an uncanny emanation of the German’s malevolent past, the comic’s stage name, Genghis Cohn, evokes Europe’s perennial fear of being overrun by hordes of alien Others. Cohn’s spectral presence, glued to his murderer, metonymically calls attention to the perpetration of the Jewish genocide and the failure to erase its memory. Reviewer Steve Lipman observes, “With no scenes of blatant death camp brutality, no ovens or chimneys, the horror is masked—everything is implied in Cohn's wan smile and soulless laughter. The film, set in 1958, is less about the Shoah than about post-war Germany” (27). Despite this temporal designation, and although the film is set in Germany, I maintain that its British production, complete with British cast, and targeting a British audience, addresses Britain’s belated memorialization of the Jewish tragedy.
Humorous responses to World War II have been and continue to be a compelling subject of British culture, integrating satire and parody into tales of self-sacrificing heroism and the blood and sweat it took to achieve victory over Nazi domination. Forming a nexus of political, cultural, and gender relations, Genghis Cohn anchors the country town mystery to a multivalent satire—of German denazification and classic British World War II movies. Michael Berkowitz delineates the oppositions with which British wartime films represented their war heroes and enemies:
In most of the scores of British films that focus on Germans and Nazis over the course of the war, the enemy is depicted as cunning, calculating, and highly competent....Germans are characterized as essentially different from the Allies to the extent that they resort to any means to achieve their goals and are brutal and arrogant in their manner....Even hardened Englishmen in British Intelligence concur: “We do not kill women.” (142)
A key example of this dichotomy in wartime British film is Leslie Howard’s 1941 Pimpernel Smith, which satirizes Nazi cunning to boost the British public’s morale during the onslaught of the Blitz. The Nazi leadership is represented as a send-up of Herman Goering, a wily, brutish buffoon who is defeated by the English hero’s donnish but suave demeanor and intellectual acuity.14 Aaron Kerner posits a psychological and ethical underpinning to this victory, that the representation of “Nazis as monstrous” establishes “a radical divide between their evil and our good” (213). “The rabid insistence upon clearly evil Nazi characters lulls the spectator into a narcissistic stupor, reassured that the West defeated and purged the fascist taint, that good ultimately vanquished evil,” he writes (213).
Genghis Cohn replaces the breach between its British audience and ex-Nazi characters with a critical, comic symbiosis. One feature that makes this narratively possible is the film’s portrayal of Licht’s former Nazis as foredoomed, as constitutionally self-defeating rather than monsters needing to be vanquished. Depicted as clueless, nerve-racked incompetents, they sublimate the defeat of their masculinist militarism into bureaucratic fervor. Genghis Cohn mediates the oppositions that structured wartime British films by inserting Cohn’s character in a liminal position, as an undead, indomitable Jewish victim of Nazism who facilitates the inclusion of Holocaust memory into the British World War II cinematic tradition. In his concentration camp garb and shaved head, Cohn, a dramatically visual Other, is distanced historically and culturally from audience identification in 1993 and afterwards. Yet he is also the prevailing instrument of the film’s satiric method and the audience’s pleasure. Facing the BBC camera and speaking directly to British audiences, he inserts himself into the British World War II narrative as an inescapable presence, embodying a history that must now be acknowledged as reverberating in the ongoing present.15 Having been the target of the war’s most horrific moments, the Jewish ghost provokes his British audience with the critical knowledge that they did not stand alone homogeneously against the threat of Nazi domination.
Terror as Satire
Like the recent Polish Holocaust films, Aftermath (2012) and Demon (2015), and Eva Hoffman’s play The Ceremony (2019), Genghis Cohn represents the challenge of constructing a morally and historically viable Holocaust memory by using a spectral emanation to represent those lost in the maelstrom of Nazi slaughter.16 Genghis Cohn is a human shard, unearthed from Germany’s brutal past, but he refuses to be interpreted as a passive victim suffering the disorientation of trauma. Speaking for himself and on behalf of his murdered community, he will not be silenced or exorcised. Instead, the film weaponizes his skills as a ventriloquist. Situating Cohn’s ghostly perspective in an absurdist fantasy mocks the Nazi perpetrators and haunts British World War II memory. His control of a postwar German town and of the film’s narrative both deploys and lampoons conventions that have solidified popular British responses to World War II. Christopher Madden’s discussion of British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson is instructive here: “The reader faces the paradoxical situation by which laughter, a response with potentially destructive consequences for the object and subject of humor, is in retreat at just those moments when a comic mode such as satire responds to a situation that defies logic and sense” (38).
In Genghis Cohn the murdered Jew asserts his presence and voice not as a victim, but as a gleeful reaper. As though responding to the despair and rage of his erasure from historical memory, the Jewish ghost takes desperate measures. He possesses and therefore dominates the body, identity, and voice of his killer. Torture transmutes into satire. With frolicsome aggression, Cohn transforms the once ruthless SS officer into a facsimile of a Jewish nebbish (typically a man, considered pitifully hapless) and a schlemiel (a bumbler tripped up by a vision of a world counter to reality).17 That this image is consistent with Romain Gary’s personal and literary vision is posited by Adam Gopnik:
[Gary was] dedicated to an extravagantly complicated ideal of humanity. Here was a man of steadfast personal courage who spoke up in his writing for those called cowards, for the schlemiels and wise guys and pranksters who, faced with the unimaginable evils of human existence, feigned and dodged and, sometimes, survived. He allowed the contradictions in his own life to become identical to the absurdities of modern existence. (“The Made-Up Man”)
The film takes hold of British popular memory by transforming its wartime comic tradition of debunking Nazi power into a Jewish joke. At the same time, its uncanny comic protagonist inserts the memory of the disappeared Jews into British culture.18
Immediately following the opening credits, three rapidly cut, somberly shaded images prepare us for the Jew’s possession of his killer and of Holocaust memory by previewing Cohn’s talent for parodic ventriloquism (Fig. 3).
Performing in 1933 Berlin, 1936 Vienna, and 1939 Warsaw, with escalating bite, Cohn audaciously turns the tables on the antisemitism that would morph from verbal slurs to genocide and remain, at least for a time, below the veneer of western civilization. Balancing his Hitler dummy on his knees, Cohn provokes his British audiences to recognize the absurd logic of proclaiming the self-generating existence and superiority of a master race when its authentication depended on the people and civilization Nazism would need to demonize as untermenschen, expel, and exterminate. In Cohn’s second stage performance, in 1936 Vienna, he impersonates an Orthodox Jew, complete with untrimmed beard and side curls, who asks the audience why Hitler doesn’t like the Jews. While simultaneously making the mouth, coal black mustache, and arms of his diminutive Hitler dummy flap wildly, Cohn answers his question by mocking Hitler as the object of his own antisemitism: “Jews are small, dark, and gesticulate too much.” The comic’s beatings after each of his performances form a mosaic of antisemitic violence and presage his murder in 1944 while reminding the audience of the age-old tropes that would continue to shadow the liberal West even after its triumph over Nazism.
The film then cuts to thirteen years after the Allies’ victory and West Germany’s prosperity after denazification. Introducing the audience to Licht, its Minister of the Interior congratulates his constituents: “Like so many towns and villages in our state, you have through your own diligence and hard work, rebuilt our fine cultural and architectural heritage. May we all continue to enjoy it in peace and prosperity.” A water ballet celebrates Licht’s complacent self-satisfaction while with a cinematic wink, also mimics Hollywood’s upbeat Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s and 1940s. In perfect sync, the women swimmers lift their legs and arms from the water to form a sign of Germany’s unreconstructed past—an unmistakable swastika. James Jordan interprets the swimming pool as “a visual reminder that the re-generation of the town has been built on the horrors of the Holocaust, with the swimmers not waving but drowning as they too perform, eventually disappearing below the surface, haunted by an unspoken guilt which suggests that the past and the present co-exist” (252). Contributing to the film’s satiric thrust, with clipped British accents, British actors perform the postwar fate of Germans who had served the Third Reich, with ironic élan. Their performances suggest that the denazification programs have succeeded only insofar as reeducating Germans to become democratic has required a British burlesque of German “cunning” and “arrogance.”
That Cohn’s British accent is embellished with Yiddish inflections and gestures endows his character with revisionary import. He launches a burlesque of Nazism as his own program of denazification. In a comic translation of a mordant Jewish folktale, he assumes the character of a dybbuk, which Romain Gary defines as an “evil spirit, a demon who grabs you, gets within you, and starts to reign and lord it over you, as master” (Dance 67).19 In so doing, Cohn inflects ventriloquism with a multifaceted historical polemic. Infiltrating the body, soul, and voice of the denazified Otto Schatz, the Jewish victim reminds the police commissioner that he cannot escape his brutal past. Taking possession of the character of an SS perpetrator offers the Jewish victim the opportunity to interpret the Holocaust story, as Timothy Snyder and others demonstrate, so that “the Holocaust has come to be seen as the central event of modern European history” (77).
As artist and performer, Cohn manipulates the unsolved murder mystery of Licht’s men to raise questions about connections between the popular fiction of genteel murder mysteries and the ways the Holocaust is remembered. It even seems as though he might have engineered both the murder mystery and the Germans’ inability to solve it. As Jeremy Lester argues,
If he said who committed the murders the parallel would have been lost. People are more interested in solving serial killings than they are about finding out who killed six million Jews or two million Cambodians. We don’t know who did those murders. I mean, Genghis Cohn isn’t Agatha Christie. It’s not a whodunit. (36)
Indeed, Stanley Price, the screenwriter, spent two years “fighting...off the suggestion that there should be a resolution” (Lester 36). Instead, at the end of the film, as though he is affirming Price’s stand, Cohn provokes his audiences by insisting on their self-reflection rather than the comfort of a simple answer. In his striped pajamas adorned with a yellow star and bullet holes, he chides us: “When it comes to mass murders, you don’t ask whodunit—you ask why.”
The film investigates the question of “why” throughout the development of Cohn’s relationship with Schatz. For example, Cohn’s rejoinders to Schatz’s condemnations poke the former Nazi with ironic humor that also prods the audience’s response:
Schatz: You won't succeed in your miserable revenge, Cohn.
Cohn: This is revenge? No, this is a little joke. Where's your sense of fun?
Schatz: Fun! You little Jew bastard! We should have got rid of you all. You in particular!
Cohn: You did. Remember!
Schatz: You didn't die with dignity, not even in the face of death. Not even for your country.
Cohn: I didn't have a country.
Schatz: Your religion, then.
Cohn: I didn't believe in it.
Schatz: What sort of Jew are you, then?
Cohn: Jew enough for you to kill.
The biting irony in the Jew’s retorts resonates with Lawrence Baron’s insight about “the intent of the majority of directors who grapple humorously with the Holocaust, ridicule Nazi anti-Semitism, lament the Final Solution and sympathize with its victims. To laugh or not to laugh?...Their comedies make no pretense of being historically realistic and resort to humor to remind the world of the insanity and inhumanity of ethnic, racial, or religious genocide” (Presentation). In addition to having infiltrated Schatz’s character, Cohn exposes and sabotages the residual Nazi antisemitic canards that denazification and “peace and prosperity” were supposed to repair. Cohn’s insistence on his individual brand of Jewish identity crumbles Schatz’s conflation of Jewish differences into the stereotype that dehumanized Nazism’s victims. At the same time, the comic has the last word with his searing reminder that in the Nazi crusade, any definition of Jew would suffice.
The Jewish ventriloquist also launches an insurrection against high German culture and society. His first line of offense is to toss Yiddish phrases into Schatz’s German lexicon. This canny use of Cohn’s talent suggests that the German Police Commissioner is now the comic’s dummy. For the culture that prided itself on its linguistic powers, that is, the language of Goethe and Schiller, the hybridity of Yiddish—equal parts Slavic, German dialect, and Hebrew—constituted a mongrel language for the Nazis. In this framing, the language of East European Jews was racialized, presumed to express both their subhuman nature and disloyal wanderings. Yiddish as portrayed in the film is deployed by Cohn as retaliation against Nazi Germany’s categorical dismissal of the Jewish people as unworthy of life and their culture as both degenerate and a threat to the supremacy of German civilization.20 As an observer at the 1961 Eichmann trial noted about the impact of a Yiddish-speaking witness, “You shivered on hearing the words of the language of the slaughtered and the burned” (Prager 250). David Bellos’s interpretation of the novel’s use of Yiddish applies to the film as well; “a Yiddish kind of joke as well as a joke about Yiddish: Yiddish figuring almost literally here as the ‘bad conscience’ of German” (48). And so at the defining moment in 1944, as Cohn is about to be shot by Schatz’s firing squad, he turns his back, lowers his striped pajamas, and hurls the most hypertrophied base insult to the officers of the Master Race: “Kush mir in tokhes! —Kiss my AssI” (Dance 25). In the film, as Cohn later explains to Schatz, “I didn’t have a machine gun, only my chutzpah.” This last Yiddish word is especially resonant as it was understood by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s Minister of Culture and Propaganda, as
a typically Jewish expression that really cannot be translated into any other language, since chutzpah is a concept found only among the Jews. Other languages have not needed to invent such a word, since they do not know the phenomenon. Basically, it means unlimited, impertinent, and unbelievable impudence and shamelessness. (Weinstein 175)
Expounding on this assertion, in Gary’s novel, Cohn reflects on whether his gesture was “a kind of prophecy, a premonition, almost as if I had foreseen that the Jews would one day be accused of having gone to their death like sheep, without fighting back? The only weapon we had was our bare ass, so I used mine” (Dance 25).
Jewish comedy in several modes is performed as a cheeky resistance. For example, as though he has learned comedy from his Jewish master, Schatz impulsively performs slapstick Jewish humor, tumbling over a sofa, just like the three Stooges—all Jews—rolled into one.21 Irresistibly, Schatz, the former Aryan role model, is also made to succumb to another iconic feature of Jewish culture; he begins to crave traditional East European Jewish food—gefilte fish, chopped liver, latkes. This is not, however, an anodyne or redemptive transformation. As the murder plot escalates, he is accused of being the sexually depraved killer and yet too weak to perform his police commission. That this is the kind of contradiction that defined the Nazi construction of Jewish men is compressed into two tableaux near the end of the film. In an empty synagogue, as though standing in memoriam for the slaughtered Jews who once comprised a vibrant community, Cohn and Schatz don prayer shawls and yarmulkes and read the kaddish prayer for the dead. Performing as both student and supplicant, Schatz revivifies a ritual that signals his willing participation, perhaps even conversion to the religion he and his minions had once pronounced as degenerate and a death warrant.
The ex-Nazi’s transformation is complete when, like the Jews, he must suffer their persecution. In a penultimate scene, wearing ordinary worker’s garb, Schatz is shown operating a kosher food stand. In effect, he seems to have imbibed or been possessed by the very culture he had participated in despising and exterminating. Interpreted more radically, the ultimate success of Cohn’s denazification program could be said to lie in the disappearance of the Nazi—into the Jew. The transposition is so complete that Schatz is taken to be authentically Jewish, and is beaten at the end in a scene replicating Cohn’s beatings at the film’s beginning. More ambiguously, however, the Munich police chief muses, “He’s either an ex-Nazi who speaks Yiddish or a Jew pretending to be an ex-Nazi.” Although Schatz is represented in 1944 as efficiently brutal, in full command, as postwar police commissioner, possessed by the Jew, the memory of the Holocaust has destabilized his identity. He becomes ineffectual, as though he has absorbed the victimization he perpetrated upon the Jews.
Reflexively, Cohn’s takeover parodies Schatz’s former Nazi identity, ideology, and genocidal practices, including its militarist masculinity. Symbolized by the tailoring of the Hugo Boss SS uniform that encouraged ramrod posture and underscored its point with silver skull and crossbones, Nazi eroticism becomes a target of the film’s mockery (Landler, “A Small Town”). In her essay “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag explains that “the SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful”:
A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection; identity as a biological given) [that] implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a “spiritual” force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic (that is, women) is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse. (“Fascinating Facism”)
That gender plays a pivotal role in the film’s satire is apparent in its deflation of the mighty masculinity of former Nazi operatives. It also surfaces in a woman’s reverence for Nazi supremacy, embodied by her husband, a fallen SS officer. Baroness Frieda von Stangel memorializes Nazi masculine glory by arranging her husband’s full military regalia as a work of erotic art, a shrine. Savvy, however, about the post-Nazi political landscape, she hides the Baron’s totemic uniform in a closet. The dual gestures of her characterization evince Licht’s pragmatic ambivalence about erasing the Nazi past and having succumbed to the Allies’ denazification program.
The film connects Licht’s sex murders to the Nazi past in episodes pivoting on the sexual misfortunes of Schatz and the Baroness von Stangel. For the Baroness, the erotic charge of Schatz’s Hitler mustache and black side swept hair would be all the more intense if the former Nazi officer donned the Baron’s SS uniform. As an embodied sex symbol twice over, Schatz’s performance would suggest that the supreme power of Nazi masculinity is not only being memorialized but has also been resurrected. Performed with comic brio by Diana Rigg, her body heaves with lust as she recalls her husband’s valiant death in the invasion of Russia. So inspired, she reincarnates the mythic figure of a Valkyrie, who in her power to choose heroes as lovers as well as their fate in battle, is a model of Nazi heroic femininity.22
But Schatz is unable to fulfill her desires. Just as their passion is about to be consummated, he is terror-stricken by the spectral sight of Cohn. Nazi sex is disrupted by the presence of the Jew, forming a folie à trois that suggests a Jewish interpretation of denazification. Still wearing the Baron’s uniform, haunted by himself as Nazi perpetrator and by the Jewish victim, the beleaguered Schatz runs helter-skelter through the empty, silent streets of Licht, the Baron’s SS trousers around his knees while carrying and hiding behind one of the town’s picturesque pots of flowers. As though satirizing the picture-perfect settings of both Licht and British green and gentle mysteries, the funereal, florally adorned townscape and rumpled specter of Nazi supremacy demolish national myths of sustaining heroism and postwar returns to quiescent social and political normalcy. In Genghis Cohn historical reality intervenes as the final, indecorous defeat of Nazi power. Signified by a detumescent SS uniform, Nazi militarist masculinity is defeated by a Jewish prank. This time, however, the victor is not the Allies but the ghost of a Jewish victim, standing alone, unallied except for the murdered millions, who in the film’s 1958 setting were not yet being memorialized. In the figure of Genghis Cohn, Jewish masculinity, which had been characterized by Nazism as both effeminate and sexually predatory, asserts the power of its historical memory and perdurable comic irony over revivifying the myth of an indomitable conqueror.23
Schatz’s transfigured persona points to a struggle regarding the legacy of World War II and Holocaust memory: how to create a critical synthesis of the impermeability of Nazi crimes and the haunting absence of its victims. At the end of the film the Jewish presence in the former Nazi suggests a problem with imagining their mutual empathy as a solution, as Christopher Madden notes: “The reader’s empathy for a text’s characters complicates the humorous situation further still by raising the ethical stakes of laughter” (36). For however transformed the former SS officer may be, his crimes cannot be absolved or forgotten. To do so would erase his victims. It is with this concern that at the end of the film, taking place in the present day of its production, we see Cohn walking the streets of Munich, the birthplace of Nazism, and hear him say to us, “But why worry, it couldn't happen again could it?” As Lawrence Baron posits, unchanged over time from his concentration camp appearance, Cohn is “a post-Holocaust incarnation of the Wandering Jew. He seems condemned to roam eternally because there is no credible answer to the troubling questions he has posed” (143). Indeed, in his wanderings between past and present, Genghis Cohn implants the Holocaust past and creates a testimonial cinematic memorial that as long as audiences view the film, will not be ignored. Imagined together in this product of British culture, the Jewish outsider and transformed SS officer argue for integrating their indelibly conjoined Holocaust story into the historical memory of British World War II culture.
1 The Golden Age writers of the 1930s were Christie, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy Sayers. Robert Barnard accounts for Christie’s continuing popularity in her creation of a “timeless, changeless world” in which “right and truth will triumph over the evil and the obscure” (133). Susan Rowland emphasizes Christie’s “use of self-conscious fictionality to criticize (as well as ultimately uphold) traditional class structures as they threaten to become outmoded and orally empty in modernity” (42).
2 Gary’s novel takes place in 1968, which assumes and speaks to a very different political climate from the film’s 1958 setting.
3 Frieda, produced in 1947, features a German war bride of an RAF flyer who is rejected by his hometown. See Aldgate and Richards and Insdorf; and see Richard Brownstein for a comprehensive list of Britain's production of Holocaust films.
4 A documentary film, My Knees Were Jumping: Children of the Kindertransport, was produced in the U.S. in 1996.
5 The word Holocaust derives from the Greek holokauston, translated from the Hebrew olah, meaning a burnt sacrifice to God. Holocaust became the most widely used term because it denoted the Nazis’ killing centers where crematorium ovens burned the victims’ bodies. Tim Cole discusses the miniseries Holocaust and its British reception. Released one month after Genghis Cohn, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List created a “symbiosis between commercial and ethical production [and] resolved the conflict between popular reception, aesthetic content and appropriate thematic,” according to Marcus Stiglegger (19).
6 New York Times film critic A. O. Scott offers a warning for today’s audiences in his incisive analysis of cinematic portrayals of Nazism “where fascism has been expunged, its spell permanently broken by humanism and humor” (Arts 11).
7 Emily Burack notes that the current use of the mantra “Never Forget” is “tied to the aftermath of the Holocaust” and “most likely began in postwar Israel. The phrase was used in secular kibbutzim there in the late 1940s; it was used in a Swedish documentary on the Holocaust in 1961.”
8 See Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe.
9 See Sanders, The British Channel Islands under German Occupation 1940–1945.
10 The documentary film consists of footage shot by British soldiers who discovered Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, among other camps, but was only broadcast on American PBS in 1985 under the title Frontline: Memory of the Camps.
11 See Gigliotti, Golomb, and Steinberg Gould.
12 As interpreted by Nourit Melcer-Padon, “In Hebrew, ‘Schatz’ is an abbreviation for ‘shaliakh tsibur,’ (‘emissary of the congregation’), a representative of the collective prayer at the synagogue. Gary’s use of this name for a former Nazi German police commissioner, responsible for German public security, is quite cynical, and turns the character into a kind of German ‘Everyman’” (48).
13 Nancy Huston reports that the novel was apparently inspired by Gary’s visit to the remains of the Warsaw ghetto in 1966 when he “fainted after having hallucinated the arm of a hidden Jew shaking its fist at him through a sewer grill” (559).
14 For extended discussion of Pimpernel Smith, see my Espionage and Exile. Olaf Jensen notes that British TV series, including Dad’s Army, Allo, Allo!, Fawlty Towers, and That Mitchell and Web Look turn the war “into a light affair complete with a laughter track” and characterize the Nazis “as fools” (115).
15 In her review of the film, Helen Jacobus notes that it could offend Germans “with its underlying accusation that Germany continues to ignore its history of genocide” (“Ghostly Comedy”).
16 For discussion of these productions, see my essay “The Quest for Holocaust Memory in Polish Films 2012–2016.”
17 James Jordan questions the Cohen/Schatz configuration as either “two beings who live in different worlds or...two halves of the same whole? Is Cohn a hallucination or a dybbuk?” (256).
18 Noting that “ironic quips and black humor are the essence of British advertising,” an article by Sarah Ellison in The Wall Street Journal about publicizing the opening of the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust exhibit asked, “Is the World Ready to Discuss the Holocaust with an Ironic Twist?”
19 The figure of the dybbuk was created by the Russian Jewish folklorist S-Ansky and was first dramatized on the stage in 1922 by the Habimah Theater in Moscow and then in a renowned modernist Yiddish film version in 1937, directed by Michał Waszyński. Most recently, the Polish film Demon transposes the male figure of the dybbuk into a Jewish bride who possesses the body and soul of a Polish bridegroom, avenging the erasure of Holocaust memory in Poland.
20 For a comprehensive analysis of this cultural phenomenon, see Alon Confino.
21 See Three Stooges shorts, You Natzy Spy! and I'll Never Heil Again.
22 Gisella Bock analyzes Nazi gender ideology as racist sexism when applied to superior German women who were encouraged to produce Aryan children, especially boys. With no children in sight, the Baroness’s unreconstructed commitment to Nazism and aristocratic status would be her salvation during the Third Reich.
23 Jonathan Schorsch argues that “The Jewish ghost has won, yet the triumph is Pyrrhic, its haunting powers dismissed by the insatiable longing for ever more fashionable ghosts” (143).
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